There’s always a “next man up” moment for any team making a playoff run. Usually they’re pretty minute, but required. It’s the nature of the sport. Although they usually don’t involve shuffling things around at quarterback, at least not for teams that want to make it to the state final four.
When Goochland beat East Rockingham 35-21 in the Class 2A semifinals, it wasn’t a surprise that the Bulldogs came out and did what they did. The shock was more of the how — at least on the offensive side of the ball — that really stood out. Goochland came into the contest without one of its top rushers in Quincy Snead. But there wasn’t much panic for first year coach Alex Fruth — it just meant moving quarterback Devin McCray to the wing for most of the game and letting freshman CJ Towles handle responsibilities under center.
“We toyed with the idea a couple of times throughout the year,” Fruth said. “CJ’s going to be a very good quarterback because he’s a savvy kid and it was just one of those ‘ugh, how do you move the kid who’s been your quarterback the last couple of years and been very successful though?’”
The move was made though and it worked. McCray flourished on the wing, toting the ball 16 times for 118 yards and three touchdowns. Towles? He finished with eight carries for 31 yards and made the right decisions in the wing-T, getting McCray his touches and then making sure that sophomore running back Connor Popielarz get plenty of work up the gut, running inside 18 times for 175 yards and two more touchdowns.
“Things happen that force your hand,” Fruth said. “You put a kid in there who’s a rookie and it works out. We didn’t hesitate once though and the kids didn’t question any of it.”
For McCray, it was a wild week. The last two years he’s been at quarterback for just about every snap that’s mattered. He last played on the wing back in eighth grade. But with Goochland’s system being consistent from varsity down to JV and down to youth football, McCray had intimate knowledge of what to expect being put in a different position.
“I learned the wing over the week and I think it went pretty well, I was happy with it,” McCray said.
As the quarterback, he already knows what he expects out of his runners on the wing, so it was really about being on the flip side of that coin. Fruth obviously knew that too, making the switch all the more viable.
“It’s a wing-T offense and he’s played in it for a long time even though he’s just a junior,” Fruth said. “He’s seen how this works and so we didn’t think it’d be a huge adjustment for him.”
But then there’s Towles. The freshman wasn’t exactly a freshman coming into the 14th week of the season. He’s started on the defensive side of the ball at cornerback and has developed trust from his teammates. With Goochland’s schedule getting light competition-wise in the second half of the year, Towles got plenty of time at quarterback where he projects to take over for McCray in the near future, maybe as soon as next year. Still, putting the fate of the offense in a freshman’s hands is what it is — a gutsy move. Of course, for Towles to handle it the way he did spoke volumes about why this coaching staff and this team is so excited about his future.
“It was the biggest game of my life and so yeah, I was nervous coming in,” Towles said. “But once we kicked off though the nerves kind wore off and you just settle in.”
McCray knew there was a lot riding on Towles going into the game, so he went out of his way to talk to the freshman before hand. In almost perfect coach speak, he tried to make the game simple, giving him the old “one play at a time” mantra that never gets old because it’s always been the truest part of the game.
“That’s a ton of pressure starting as a freshman and so I talked to CJ a couple of days before the game about thinking about this as just another game, not letting the pressure nervewrack you,” McCray said. “I told him, ‘if you just keep doing what you do, we’re going to be just fine.’”
He did and they were so now the Bulldogs head into their state title game with Graham in Salem on Saturday with all kinds of options. The G-Men have to prepare for just about everything from this offense. Goochland should have Snead back and that could put McCray back at quarterback for most snaps. Or, the Region 2A champs could use the mix they did against East Rockingham. Or there could be a different wrinkle that sees Towles at quarterback and Snead and McCray playing off the wing or at receiver. The bottom line is that because the Bulldogs have confidence in McCray and Towles all over the field, they can kind of do whatever they want to throw Graham off guard. Preparing for the wing-T is tough enough. Trying to account for where certain athletes line up where right now for Goochland is futile. The only certainty is that once it clicks, the Bulldogs will probably stick with it.
For the freshman, it’s just about doing what’s asked. Not too many first year players get to say they had a hand in helping to put their team into the state title game. Not too many teams expect so much out of a freshman. In that way, it’s a perfect marriage.
“I’m excited, I just want to go out and get this ring,” Towles. “The older guys, they expect me to be able to live up to the hype so I have to. It’s what I’ll come out and try and do.”
This senior class will do whatever it takes to set up the freshman and the versatile junior with the opportunity to do so. Age does not matter at this point. Only the results. Towles at quarterback? McCray at quarterback? Whatever it takes.